China doesn’t exactly have the strongest reputation when it comes to the quality of come of its food. One area where the country is increasingly leading the world however, in both quality and quantity, is caviar. Two hours drive south of the picturesque town of Hangzhou lies pristine Qiandao Lake. Here in a corner of the 573 square kilometers of cool and clear waters, a very special program has quietly been building up a reputation for farmed caviar that has seen culinary giants like Alain Ducasse serve it across his global portfolio of restaurants. He visited the farm last year and I recently followed in his footsteps.
Kaluga Queen is the company that has led the way and now produces more than 60 tonnes per year for global export. Named after one of the biggest species of sturgeon, it started out as the Chinese Academy of Fisheries Sciences and eleven years ago moved into caviar production. Given that sturgeon are an endangered species, protected since 1988 by the CITES convention, the amount of legal wild caviar available globally is miniscule.
In Qiandao Lake, Kaluga is farmed alongside Beluga, Ossetra, Siberian and their own hybrid of the Kaluga and Amur. Known as ‘living fossils’ the enormous sturgeon can grow up to 1000lbs in weight and, in the case of Kaluga, produce medium to dark brown eggs with a glossy finish, smooth and full-bodied with an aromatic after taste.
Farming in pens in the lake replicates the sturgeon’s natural environment, with rich oxygen dissolution meaning the huge fish mature to egg production around ten years of age. Fed on a strict diet of food specially imported all the way from Peru, once a year in summer the fish are temporarily moved to cooler waters. Every fish is ID’d and fully traceable, with a barcode on every tin allowing customers to know the species, color, roe size, production time and more.
As for the processing, Iranian and Russian caviar masters have visited to impart their knowledge and experience across the procedure, one done entirely by hand in what is Asia’s largest sturgeon processing center. Kaluga Queen are obsessive about purity and cleanliness, in ompliance with HAACP sanitation standards, meaning extensive cleaning and air-drying before visitors can enter the production center. Once inside, the process is extraordinarily swift. In less that ten minutes, the sturgeon are opened, the eggs removed, sorted, cleaned and salted before finally being packed in tins ready for global export.
It’s not just the famously exclusive eggs, however, as none of the mighty fish is wasted. The sturgeon is prepared in numerous ways, mostly smoked, before being exported, primarily to Russia. Remarkably the sturgeon leather skins are also highly prized and are bought to be used by luxury craftsmen, including luxury handbag makers.
The business is clearly a strong one, with up to 40 kgs of eggs coming from one sturgeon. As always, however, the proof comes in the eating and the quality is borne out by an impressive client list including Shangri-La Hotels, Hyatt, Lufthansa and many more. Kaluga Queen say that across blind tastings with chefs and experts, more than 85% of respondents choose their caviar as the best. With a record like this, it seems that for Chinese caviar, the only way is up.